In the early years of the twentieth century, as they poured across the border into Texas, Mexican immigrants brought with them a familiar and cheap intoxicant: cannabis, which they called marihuana (in those days, it was spelled with an h instead of a j). Perhaps because they were young, predominantly male, and away from home—strong correlates of troublesome behavior—they were seen as lacking appropriate inhibition, especially when they came to town on weekends. Cerveza may have been more culpable, but cannabis made an easier target. In 1914, after a melee allegedly involving a marijuana smoker, the El Paso city government passed what is believed to have been the first law banning a drug that had been legally and widely used for at least five thousand years. Other cities and states quickly followed suit. Before long, marijuana was forbidden everywhere, and its use was often harshly punished.
It’s ironic, then, that nearly a century after it fired the first shot in the war on weed, the Sun City has been flirting with a cease-fire. In January, besieged by drug wars in Mexico that killed more than 5,600 people in 2008, almost a third in neighboring Ciudad Juárez alone, the El Paso City Council unanimously approved city representative Beto O’Rourke’s motion that the federal government hold an open and honest debate about legalizing all narcotics in the United States. Mayor John Cook vetoed that recommendation. “We would be the laughingstock of the country for having something like this on the books,” he said.
The incident drew national attention and some criticism, but it sparked the kind of serious conversation O’Rourke was seeking. “No one is laughing about it,” he says. “It’s not funny that sixteen hundred people died in our sister city in the course of one year in the most brutal fashion imaginable. We’ve had waves of violence before, but it took events of this magnitude to convince everyone that something is deeply wrong here, that we are part of the problem and we can do something to fix it. It’s the demand that’s fueling this war. If our drug laws were different, I will absolutely guarantee you that our body count would be different.”
O’Rourke’s is no solitary voice crying in the wilderness, nor is the problem limited to Texas. Noting that “the violence that we see in Mexico is fueled sixty-five to seventy percent by the trade in one drug, marijuana,” Arizona attorney general Terry Goddard has called for “at least a rational discussion as to what our country can do to take the profit out of that.” In February, a blue-ribbon Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy, led by former presidents of Mexico, Colombia, and Brazil, called on the U.S. to change the prohibitionist policies that drive the prices of drugs to obscene levels, enable drug cartels to amass enormous wealth, and threaten the stability of several Latin American countries, including Mexico. What is needed, the commission said, is not tightening or tinkering with a failed war on drugs but a questioning of long-held assumptions and a willingness to change. More recently, U.S. senator Jim Webb, of Virginia, who was Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of the Navy, called for a reexamination of American drug policy, repeatedly arguing that “nothing should be off the table.”
Politicians like Webb have historically steered clear of legalization talk, fearing that a charge of being “soft on drugs” would hurt them on election day. Yet recent polls indicate that more than half of Americans—up from 29 percent a decade ago—believe recreational use of marijuana should not be a crime, and upward of 70 percent—75 percent in Texas—believe adults should be able to use the drug for medicinal purposes. Thirteen states either allow possession of small amounts or treat it as a minor violation that does not result in jail time. This change in attitude and law is grounded in experience: More than 100 million people acknowledge having used marijuana, 25 million in the past year. While most recognize that this entails some risk, they’re no longer spooked by the specter of “reefer madness.”
And they know our national drug policy, which we have tried to impose on much of the world, is deeply flawed. Only 24 percent of Americans, according to a 2008 Zogby poll, believe that the policy is effective. In the nearly forty years since Richard Nixon declared a war on drugs, federal, state, and local governments have spent hundreds of billions of dollars on eradication, interdiction, and incarceration. They’ve seized tons of contraband, destroyed crops, and imprisoned more people than any other country, a disproportionate number of them poor and black. Despite these efforts, drugs continue to be available to meet a remarkably stable demand.
With his giant can of worms already spilling over, Barack Obama is not going to let the prospect of legalization become an unwelcome controversy—much like what gays in the military was to Bill Clinton—but he has shown signs of favoring more-rational policies. Shortly after Attorney General Eric Holder was confirmed, he announced that agents of the Drug Enforcement Administration would stop raiding medical marijuana clinics. Soon afterward, the head of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy ( ONDCP), former Seattle police chief Gil Kerlikowske, said he was scrapping the war on drugs, both as a term and as a strategy, in favor of greater emphasis on prevention and treatment. In late July, U.S. envoy to Afghanistan Richard Holbrooke revealed that our country was phasing out the eradication of poppy crops there, an exercise that he said had wasted hundreds of millions of dollars, alienated farmers, and driven people into the embrace of the Taliban, all without making a dent in the amount of opium reaching the market.
Given this change in climate, from Main Street to Pennsylvania Avenue, it’s not surprising that serious talk of legalization is in the air. Indeed, some form seems likely to occur in the near future, driven by both democracy and demography. A longtime pro-pot activist explained it to me this way: